Bloomsday - a day like no other

Dublin and the Irish diaspora celebrate 16th June in honour of James Joyce, his masterpiece Ulysses and its most famous hero, one Leopold Bloom... It's an excuse for grub and a trip to the pub.

As a young man James Joyce felt that Dublin was too small and claustrophobic for a man of his talents, and decided to take himself off to the continent with his lover, Nora Barnacle, who would later become his long- suffering wife. Despite his difficult character many people did try to help him before he left for the continent. W.B. (William Butler) Yeats, for instance, arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century, offered to write letters of recommendation for Joyce to his influential friends in Paris. Joyce accepted Yeats's offer of help reluctantly, but on parting told Yeats that he was both too old and passed his prime. To this insult Joyce added that he had youth on his side. Few young writers would be so arrogant or rude today, but equally so, few would be so confident in their own abilities.

James Joyce is most renowned for having written Ulysses, a brilliant and challenging but often incomprehensible work. Leopold Bloom, one of the book's three "heroes", is an Irish Jew who sets out on an odyssey through Dublin's streets on 16th June 1904. Much speculation has been made about Joyce's choice of 16th June. It is generally thought that Joyce chose the day in honour of the occasion when he first walked out with Nora, although others have suggested the day marked the occasion of their first sexual liaisons.

The events of the day depicted in Ulysses are told chronologically, but the chapters differ widely in style and difficulty. I myself enjoy the first two chapters the best but, to my regret, little understand the rest. Having said this, I have been fortunate enough to hear recordings of the monologues of Stephen Daedalus and Molly Malone, the two other celebrated characters in the novel, performed by actors, and the effect of the spoken word I found to be simply breathtaking.

Bloomsday as an event was first celebrated by Joyce and his circle of admirers in Paris during the 1920s. It is now a calendar event in Dublin and in many other places throughout the world. If you happen to be in Dublin on the day you shouldn't be too surprised to see groups of men and women walking about in the kind of summer clothes that would have been worn one hundred years ago. Straw hats and striped blazers are the preferred choice for men whereas the women may choose floral decorated hats and the kind of comfortable dresses that were tightened at the top and flowed at the legs. Street parties, walking tours and numerous literary events also take place throughout the city, and mention must be made of Bloomsday's inspirational honorary ambassador, Professor David Norris of Dublin's Trinity College, who is a world authority on Joyce and whose efforts have made Bloomsday the great event that it is.

Bloomsday holds a particularly fond place in my childhood memory, as for a number of years a great party was held in my street in honour of the fact that Leopold Bloom was supposed to have lived there for a time! 58 Lombard Street, if you'd like to know. I remember well tables from each house being placed together ad hoc right to the end of our long street. Food and drink were laid out in abundance. What made the occasion so special was the sense of community and good spirits of old and young alike. Sadly, the street party discontinued about fifteen years ago with the passing of the street's older generation, although I'm sure such events are carried on to this day elsewhere in Dublin. Bloomsday serves as a poignant reminder of the cultural wealth of Ireland's capital, even as Dublin's traditions, landmarks and its very character seem to be disappearing rapidly with the great economic successes of Ireland's Celtic Tiger.

Ulysses is filled to the brim with minute details of Dublin city life at the beginning of the last century: its characters, streets, parks and pubs. Chiefly on display on Bloomsday, though, as on every other day, are the pubs. They remain Ireland's most democratic institutions and continue to quench the thirst of writers, artists, businessmen and everyone else you care to mention. Be prepared, however, for having to shout quite loudly to your friends and for the boisterous and fun-loving atmosphere. And did I forget to mention the very high price of beer? Dublin's most famous pub area is Grafton Street, a most exceptional boulevard. Just off Grafton Street is the Mecca of literary pubs such as McDaid's, which can boast of having had a clutch of Ireland's greatest writers among its clientele. You can always expect McDaid's and other pubs of its kind to be doing great business on 16th June.

Ulysses is, of course, not the only book by Joyce, and you would be advised to read the semi-autobiographical Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners, a collection of short stories. I love Dubliners best of all and can still recognise the Dublin that I once knew in my childhood in its pages.

If you do happen to come to Dublin any time soon, you should not forget to visit the James Joyce Museum at Martello Tower, situated in Sandycove (approximately 10 kilometres from the City Centre, but fortunately on a direct train line). This is featured in the first chapter of Ulysses and is where James Joyce stayed for a few short weeks whilst still a student. Martello Tower is also a prime spot to see for yourself the beauty of Dublin's coastline and the elegance of its coastal suburbs.

Happily, Bloomsday celebrations are not just confined to Dublin, but are held throughout the world, especially in the States and Australia. Poland is no exception - Cracow has taken the lead in recent years.

For anyone who is looking for inspiration, why not check out the following list of events being organised by the Joyce centre in Dublin. Remember, though, Bloomsday is not simply a literary event, but an occasion for ordinary people to celebrate their being a special part of the community.

Barry Keane